The Air Tasking Order (ATO) is the cornerstone of modern air power command and control: If you’re not on the ATO, you don’t fly. But perhaps we have become too wedded to a concept that can be overly restrictive and which can stifle individual initiative. Perhaps we need to loosen the couplings that currently bind the application of air power, and encourage the use of the airman’s intellect and adaptability to create a cohesive and imaginative air power capability.

I’ve recently had a lot discussions with fellow airmen about the future of Australian air power, including at the excellent Rowland Seminar run by UNSW. We’ve discussed difficult problems facing Australian air power and tried to come up with innovative solutions to those problems. If we could not find solutions — which was often the case — we discussed where and why we failed, and what might be done to address the deficiencies. I think we learned a great deal. In particular, many of us learned about what we did not know and the limits of our capabilities under challenging circumstances.

One of the issues that we talked about a lot was command and control. In particular, we identified that in the kinds of operating environments we may encounter in the future our physical presence in forward areas may present unacceptable vulnerabilities and our access to the electromagnetic spectrum may be contested, if not denied. These twin realities of future conflict challenged our capacity to execute air operations in the exquisitely detailed manner to which we have become accustomed. By necessity in some future scenarios, there may be far less detailed planning and coordination and much more work it out as you go. However, we also understood that exquisite integration was appealing in many respects so would continue to be exercised when and where possible. The real challenge, it seemed, was being able to operate effectively under different paradigms from one day to the next, or even from one hour to the next.

Whilst it may seem anathema to airmen brought up on air power’s central tenet of centralised control/decentralised execution, the idea of operating in this manner appealed to many. Indeed, perhaps the most insightful comment I heard was that these kinds of ‘pick up’ operations may be a small air force’s asymmetric advantage. To paraphrase: “big air forces that exploit mass need detailed integration to ensure they get their mass in the right spot at the right time. We do not have that mass so we cannot exploit it, but nor are we constrained by it. Small air forces should be able to thrive in a contested and chaotic environment because we can adapt faster than anyone else.”

The tight integration of air operations is epitomised by detailed air tasking orders and voluminous coordinating instructions that emanate from a centralised air operations centre. This centralised approach arose from the lessons of the Vietnam where geographic ‘route packages’ were used to ‘deconflict’ US air power into Navy and Air Force areas rather than integrate them into a single force. As Ben Lambeth has argued, through centralisation of planning and standardisation, US Navy and US Air Force air power gradually became a tightly integrated ‘combat pair’ in the thirty years following the Vietnam War. US allies have similarly embraced this approach to ensure they can integrate into US-led campaigns. The highly integrated approach has delivered unprecedented concentration of force in space and time. The impact of which was most apparent in the air campaigns of the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly the opening nights of the air operations against Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

It's successful use in ensuring the effective coordination of the air campaign in Operation Desert Storm cemented the Air Tasking Order as the cornerstone of air power command and control. [Image Credit: US Air Force]

It’s successful use in ensuring the tight integration of multinational air power during the air campaign in Operation Desert Storm cemented the Air Tasking Order as the cornerstone of air power command and control. [Image Credit: US Air Force]

But this has been achieved through personnel- and technology-intensive planning processes that demands adherence to the central edicts if you wish to participate in the air war. The trend was exacerbated during the air operations over Afghanistan and Iraq where a benign air environment and a relatively low operational tempo permitted decision-making to be aggregated at higher and higher levels, resulting in ever greater reams of procedural paperwork. Adding to this was the complexity of a coalition, multi-agency environment in which everyone — even the non-government organisations — seem to have their own aircraft that needed to get from point A to point B safely. Further still, the rise of unmanned aircraft that cannot “see and avoid” places an even higher premium on procedural controls.

To borrow a term from software engineering, Western air power seem to have become tightly coupled to its command and control systems. Tight coupling is usually associated with low cohesion ,where cohesion measures the strength of relationships between pieces of functionality. Low cohesion typically indicates a fragile, difficult to maintain system because tightly coupled/low cohesion systems have many components whose functions are dependent upon one another. A change to one component necessitates a change to many. By contrast, the components of loosely coupled/high cohesion system function independently — which means the system is robust and one part of the system can be changed without impacting other components. The evolving strategic environment means we need to loosen the coupling and increase the cohesion of air power, lest in future our adversaries render our air power completely decoupled.

Some have argued for new command and control models for air power, to adapt existing paradigms, or even to adjust the central bumper sticker. They may well be right, but I think the focus on models is a distraction. For me, the focus needs to be on loosening Western air power’s coupling to command and control systems. We need to enhance air power’s cohesion so that it can better adapt to whatever level of integration can be achieved in a given situation. Cohesion is the asymmetric advantage of small forces because it means we can focus on deciding what to do next in changing circumstances, not figuring out how to execute basic function in the absence of a detailed air tasking order or special instructions.

We need to practise being loosely coupled in order to capitalise on the asymmetric advantage of small air forces. As another colleague noted, our operational-level and tactical-level exercises each model their preferred mode of operations. Tactically-focused activities emphasise distributed authorities and initiative, whilst those focused on the operational-level tend to involve exquisitely crafted plans. There are good reasons for keeping them separate. An outsider observing what an over-excited air operations centre does to tactical training outcomes or what the realities of available flying hours and noise windows do to operational-level complexity would probably argue they are mutually exclusive activities. But a software engineer would recognise tight coupling and low cohesion. We need to practice changing those models on the fly so that both training audiences can function effectively, even when everything else is changing.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about building cohesion in the force is that it does not necessarily require the acquisition of an expensive new piece of hardware or software. Quite the contrary, enhancing cohesion is about de-coupling air power’s effectiveness from its hardware and software. Instead, air power’s cohesion lies in its collective wetware: the first generation bio-organic fusion engine between everyone’s ears. Wetware is the critical element in extracting benefit from available hardware and software. But it is particularly important when trying to adapt hardware and software to circumstances for which they were not designed.

Optimising the capacity and capabilities of our wetware is not a new idea for air forces. Wetware optimisation is arguably the defining feature of fifth generation systems. Exquisitely engineered hardware and software, especially, are used to reduce the cognitive capacity an F-35 pilot must allocate to basic tasks, thus freeing up mental resources for higher-order decision-making.

Moreover, enhancing cohesion by optimising collective wetware is the foundation of aircrew staples such as crew resource management and the maintenance of ‘hard’ crews. These measures optimise the crew’s ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances, and they seem to work pretty well.

But we need to consider how to optimise our F-35 pilot’s wetware when she is not in the cockpit. Instead, she is working with her staff, as well as coalition partners, in the wing operations centre and has just received a five-line (who/what/when/where/why) order from what is left of the Air Operations Centre. The order appoints her as the package commander for a maritime strike mission on the next day using whatever resources she can cobble together from within her composite wing. No special instructions, no airspace control order, no reach-back (or reach-down); just the people around her on the ground and in the air.

Undoubtedly the crews of our aircraft would execute their assigned missions superbly, drawing on years of preparation to do just that. But would the plan they execute be good enough? Or were the first hours of the available planning time spent ‘getting everyone on the same page’ because the key staff members had only met the day before and had no common procedural baseline from which to deviate? Were vital minutes lost bemoaning the lack of an airspace control order or the absence of reach-back intelligence capabilities?

I am absolutely confident that we can do this, because air operations used to be loosely coupled. Commanders gave direction, counted the bombers on the way out and then waited to count the bombers on the way back in. In between, crews adapted and executed their plan, led by formation leads and master bombers because they had the best grasp of the situation. That was truly centralised control, decentralised execution. But it relied on cohesion built the hard way, through failure and blood.

The one prediction I will make about future of air power command and control is that no model will be optimal or possible all of the time. Therein lies an opportunity as well as a threat. Whether or not a small air force can exploit the opportunity will depend on its wetware more than its hardware. We can enhance our cohesion now, through strategic imagination, or later, through strategic reality. It is time to loosen the coupling.

Squadron Leader Chris “Guiness” McInnes is an officer  in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.